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Four principles that should guide our future immigration system

Written by
Esenam Agubretu
Date of Publication:
31 December 2019

Boris Johnson's resounding victory in the recent election has been interpreted as a mandate for taking the UK out of the EU. A future immigration system stands prominent amongst the priorities for shaping the UK's post-Brexit future. Immigration has undeniably contributed to the economic, social and cultural enrichment of the UK.

The recent Queen's Speech outlined plans for the introduction of an Australian-style immigration system. However, a system is also only as good as the principles that guide it. It is thus important that the UK gets it right in devising a future immigration system. I propose four principles that should guide a future immigration system.

Firstly, a future immigration system should be clear, simple and cost-effective. The current system is underpinned by layers of bureaucracy and involves many processes, delays and high costs for end users. For businesses, requirements such as the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) and the Immigration Skills Charge raise the cost and add to the frustration in seeking to fill skills gaps. Fees for a future immigration system must therefore be reasonable and the system uncomplicated.

Secondly, a future immigration system should also be able to attract workers at all skills levels. In advance of detailed policy announcements in January 2020, the following work-related categories have been proposed.

  • An exceptional talent /contribution category for investors, sponsored entrepreneurs, migrants who have demonstrated exceptional talent or received world-leading awards and will likely include highly skilled migrants.
  • A route for skilled workers available to those with a job offer in the UK
  • A sector-specific rules-based scheme route for youth mobility and other short temporary routes.

In general, there will be no route for low or unskilled workers apart from on a sector-by-sector basis.

The proposals are disappointing because they are essentially a re-packaging of existing routes and recent proposals contained in the 2018 Immigration White Paper. It is doubtful whether the sector by sector-specific rules-based scheme would adequately take account of the need for low skilled workers in key sectors of the UK economy. Sectors such as the NHS rely on foreign workers to meet its skills shortages. While the country needs to concentrate efforts on building its own workforce, it is likely there would remain at least in the short to medium term, the need to have a route that enables roles that are considered low skilled and unsuitable for seasonal immigration.

A future immigration system should also be fair to all countries. A consequence of Brexit is that the same immigration rules would apply to both EU and non-EU migrants. Polling results suggest that this is generally welcomed by the public and the principle behind treating immigrants similarly in a post-Brexit system seems fair. Of course, there would always be scope for differential treatment. The current immigration system for example differentiates in favour of some commonwealth countries. Nevertheless, it is arguable that the UK's future immigration system must be fair to all countries.

Finally, a future immigration system should be humane. The Windrush scandal has highlighted the consequences of an immigration system that is premised on hostility. All aspects of UK's immigration policies and procedures should at its core recognise that it is dealing with human beings.

This should start with a change in the language about immigration. The Conservatives have sometimes signalled their recognition of the contribution of migrants to the country and their desire to make them feel welcome. The scrapping of the immigration target and the commitments made to EU citizens were generally well received. Sadly, the language of the recent general election sometimes did not reflect these commitments. The language in policy documents and general discussions on immigration must not undermine the positive role migrants play in the UK.

Getting immigration right is important as the UK forges its way forward. The new Government should devise an immigration system that makes the UK a place that people want to live and work.